La Ceiba Tree of Guatemala

Guatemala Insight — by Elizabeth Bell, author/historian.

photo by [nelo] Mijangos : Ceiba near San Lucas Samox, Alta Verapaz, Guatemala

photo by [nelo] Mijangos :
Ceiba near San Lucas Samox, Alta Verapaz, Guatemala

With the celebration of Independence Day on Sept. 15, national symbols, which include the ceiba tree, come to our attention. The ceiba was declared the national tree of Guatemala in 1955 at the request of the botanist Ulises Rojas. This was, in part, because of its importance to the Maya. Today ceiba trees are protected by Guatemalan law. While known as the kapok tree in English, visitors prefer to call it the ceiba. With more than 20 species of these magnificent trees in rainforests around the world, we find the Ceiba pentandra here.

Ceiba trees can grow to more than 240 feet tall! They have a beautiful canopy and buttress roots. Thick thorns are found at the base of its trunk and, I am told by my tree experts, that the trees absorb these when they turn about 75 years old. Botanically, the thorns or spikes are called stem emergences.

It is the sacred tree of the Maya, as they believe the roots connect the underworld (Xibalba) with this world through the trunk and to the skies above with its leaves. The tree and the thorns are also found readily in many Mayan artifacts, including incense holders, dating before 900 AD. The tree is sometimes represented by a Mayan cross. There are many pre-Hispanic references where the ceiba tree is upholding the world.

The most famous ceiba tree in Guatemala is in Palin, Escuintla and it is more than 400 years old! There are many towns named after the ceiba throughout Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean.

The ceiba tree seed is used to make soap. While commercialized in Asia, we prefer to admire it here. We can now buy ceibas at garden centers locally. Everyone loves these magnificent trees.


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